Fig 1: How the UK population will grow if net migration changes

When Britain becomes “majority minority”

If current immigration levels continue, white Britons will be in a minority in the UK in little more than 50 years—within the lifespan of most young adults alive today
November 17, 2010

Public disquiet at the scale of immigration into Britain featured strongly in the last general election campaign, and almost certainly helped to decide its outcome. Despite that, most of us realise that migration for work, family, retirement, study and other purposes is normal and desirable in any civilised country. Most Britons have valued friends, colleagues or helpers who are immigrants. But the inflows of the last decade have been more sudden and on a bigger scale than ever before. The consequent increases in population and changes in its composition have caused concern about economic opportunities, housing, local character and national identity. Moreover, if inflows continue on a similar scale they will transform the demography of this country. The most recent, 2008, official projections, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), are extraordinary. As recently as 1998, the ONS projected that the UK population would peak at about 65m in 2051, and then slowly decline. The latest 2008 principal projection, however, expects it to have risen to 77m by 2051, and to 85m by 2083—mostly as a result of immigration. These rises, equivalent to adding the population of the Netherlands by 2050, are unavoidable if recent trends in migration, fertility and survival continue. And no official attention has been paid to a parallel implication of this projected increase: the inevitable alteration of the ethnic composition of Britain. Annual ONS estimates show that the ethnic minority population of England and Wales increased by almost 2m between 2001 and 2007—from 12.7 per cent of the population to 15.7 per cent. (These figures are, however, based on the 2001 census definition of ethnic minority, which included “white Irish” and “other white”—continental Europeans, Americans, some from the middle east and so on—in the minority category.) Official projections of the ethnic minority populations were published in 1979 for the first and only time. A few years ago, when presented with the demographic consequences of current migration policies, officials from the home office explained to me that population was “not the business of the home office.” Whose was it, then, one wonders? It is unclear whether those who promoted the inflows of the 1990s and 2000s understood the consequences of what they were doing. This article spells out what they might be. WHAT THE NUMBERS TELL US Net immigration into the UK, formerly negative or modest, expanded greatly in the 1990s—augmented by new flows from Europe and the rest of the world, and driven by a new, positive immigration policy after 1997. It has spurred Britain’s population, which had almost stabilised in the early 1980s, to rates of growth not seen since the baby boom of the 1960s. Immigration accounted for 57 per cent of this population growth between mid-2001 to mid-2009; meanwhile the increase in the total fertility rate (TFR), from 1.65 to 1.94 accelerated it further. (The TFR measures, in any given year, the number of children that the average woman would eventually have were the birth rates of that year to remain constant.) Foreign-born mothers have contributed the greater part of the increase in births, making up 25 per cent of all births in England and Wales in 2009—about double the percentage of the mid-1990s. The ONS’s most recent principal projection for population growth, published in 2008, assumes a long-term net migrant inflow of 180,000 (lower than the actual net inflow in 2009, which was 196,000) and a long-term TFR of 1.84 (also lower than the actual level in 2009). It also assumes that mortality rates will continue to decline. On those assumptions, as mentioned earlier, population rises to 77m by 2051 and 85m by 2083. But with migration removed from the equation, the UK population would rise to a peak of just 65m by 2036, and then return to its present level of almost 62m by 2061. The recession has introduced even greater uncertainty than usual into forecasts of future birth rates and immigration. One would expect both to decline, at least for a while, as a result of slower growth. Early indications point to a small fall in British birth rates from 2008 to 2009. But the rate for England and Wales in the December quarter 2009 (1.99) was the highest for decades, and in March 2010 it was back to the high level of 2008 (1.94). As for net immigration, always the most tricky to forecast, the year 2009 actually saw an increase to 196,000: 33,000 more than in 2008 (immigration did not decline much; emigration fell). The new government’s promise to reduce net immigration to “tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands” is a further complication. While that promise has great potential to be fudged—any outcome from 20,000 to 90,000 would meet it—it nonetheless presents ONS with a dilemma. Assuming high levels of migration implies that the government would not deliver its promise; a low one that it would. ETHNIC CHANGE IN THE UK To see what the effects of continuing high immigration are likely to be on the ethnic composition of the UK, I have made projections based on various migration assumptions (presented in greater detail in my article in the September 2010 issue of the journal Population and Development Review, Volume 36, no3). I have projected 12 ethnic groups in the UK from 2006, according to age and sex, following the official ethnic classification except that the “white British,” “white Irish” and “white Scottish” groups are amalgamated into one (“white British” for brevity), as are the four groups of “mixed” origin. The fertility of the 12 groups was calculated up to 2006 by an indirect method from surveys, and projected into the future. Ethnic groups are also assumed to share the same (national) mortality trends. (The ethnic origin of migrants was inferred from immigration statistics in combination with census data. In the census and surveys, ethnic origin is always that which respondents ascribe to themselves or their children.) Of course population projections, viewed as forecasts, depend on their assumptions about the future. Fortunately, demographic forecasts, unlike economic ones, are underwritten by the momentum of the age structure and the (usually) relatively slow and limited change of birth and death rates in modern populations. Migration, in and out, is the joker. To cover its uncertainty, I prepared four projections covering a wide range of migration outcomes, from the very high recent net immigration levels to zero immigration. The four projections are: a “standard” projection where the totals track those of the ONS 2008 projection (see Figure 1, overleaf); a “natural change” variant assuming no migration at all, in or out (Figure 2); a “reduced migration” variant where annual net immigration is assumed to fall to about 80,000; and a “balanced migration” variant where inflows and outflows are assumed to be numerically the same, although ethnically different (with the outflow being more “white British” than the inflow). These last two variants can be seen in Figure 3. In the first, “standard” projection, overall net immigration is kept to the long-term level (180,000 per year) assumed in the ONS principal projection. Net emigration of “white British” is assumed to be 74,000 annually in the long term, net immigration of all minorities together, 254,000. Migration will not, of course, remain constant, but it is the simplest assumption. On those assumptions the “white British” population would decline to 45m (59 per cent of the total) by 2051, the “other white” would increase to 7m (10 per cent) and the non-white populations to 24m (31 per cent). Were the assumptions to hold, the “white British” population of Britain would become the minority after about 2066. The US, by comparison, is now about 65 per cent white (non-Hispanic) and that group is projected to fall to 50 per cent by 2045. It may seem perverse to construct a scenario on a migration level that government has promised to reduce. But it will serve as a benchmark. Furthermore, politics is uncertain, and migration pressures are likely to remain strong. Substantial reductions in immigration would not just require constraining work-related immigration, but also addressing the greater part of net immigration that comes from marriage migration, dependents, students and asylum. In any case these are not predictions, only indications of the consequences of unchanged trends; projections even to mid-century are adventurous, never mind further into the future. It should be mentioned that the detailed ethnic projections at national and local government level, published in July by Philip Rees and his colleagues at the University of Leeds, come to different conclusions. In their more complex model they make different, mostly lower, assumptions on fertility and migration and take more fully into account assumed changes in ethnic self-identification over generations which increase the “white British” population. Their favoured approach assumes that long-term net immigration will become negative—falling to a net outflow of -38,000 per year as emigration by ethnic minorities increases. That leads to a 20 per cent ethnic minority share of the British population in 2051, and 15 per cent non-white: substantially lower than all but one of the projections (“natural change”) offered here. Migration is the key to these differences. However you estimate it, though, the powerful effect of migration on population growth is evident when it is left out of the equation. Without migration in or out (the second “natural change” variant), the projected ethnic percentages by mid-century would be 80 per cent “white British,” 16 per cent non-white and 4 per cent “other white.” This increase of the ethnic minority populations from present levels is almost inevitable; it follows from the demographic momentum built into their youthful age-structure and the higher, though converging fertility of some groups (Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black African), and the assumed effects of continued inter-ethnic unions, many of which involve one white parent. The offspring of inter-ethnic unions are often described as “mixed” by their parents, or by themselves. The ONS categorises people of “mixed” origin as non-white. Given that, their increase contributes to the growth of the non-white population, even without migration. Of course immigration can, and does, go down as well as up. What would happen if migration fell or was driven down to lower levels, as many believe will happen? A number of authorities (for example reports for the department of communities and local government, and from Oxford Economics) have independently concluded that annual net immigration might fall to between 80,000 and 90,000 by about 2020, simply as a result of economic forces. I find this unlikely in the absence of government action: most migration is not for labour purposes, and employers are agitating about the immigration “cap.” However, the third “reduced migration” scenario assumes such a decline. In that scenario, annual net emigration of “white British” is assumed to remain at 74,000, net immigration of people of other origins 155,000, giving a net inflow overall of 81,000. That would just allow the government to claim it had fulfilled its promise. But even on this scenario the “white British” share would fall to 63 per cent by 2051 and would not fall below 50 per cent until about 2080. Overall, population growth would be slower, but the total would exceed 71m by 2051 and continue to increase. In 2008, a cross-party group of MPs proposed a “balanced migration” policy, with migration continuing but with equal numbers arriving and departing each year. That was roughly the position in Britain for a few years in the early 1990s. The cross-party group is not concerned with ethnic composition. But here, in the fourth projection, we assume that the “white British” population will continue to lose 74,000 each year by net emigration, as before, while ethnic minority populations together gain 74,000 per year. Because of the ethnic difference in the flows, and the relative youthfulness of the immigrant contingent, considerable ethnic and population change would still arise. The “white British” proportion in the British population would fall to 67 per cent by 2051, and to 50 per cent by the end of the century.

Fig 1: How the UK population will grow if net migration changes

Fig 2: How the UK's ethnic mix could change

Fig 3: How the percentage of "white British" will fallA YOUTHFUL NEW LOOK The 50 per cent benchmark I have mentioned has no special demographic significance, but it would have considerable psychological and political impact. It’s a milestone that would be passed much earlier in younger age-groups (the non-white British ethnic groups are more youthful than the average). The ONS estimated that 21 per cent of births in England and Wales in 2006-07 were to ethnic minority mothers, while the hospital statistics for 2005 put that figure at 35 per cent, with 11 per cent not stated (ethnic statistics are seldom simple). So if the total population were on the cusp of being “majority ethnic,” then a substantial majority would already have become so among schoolchildren, students, young workers and urbanites. At a local level in Britain and throughout Europe, such transitions are already becoming more common. Among the London boroughs (average population 230,000) two were already majority non-white at the 2001 census and, according to a report for the Greater London Authority, a further six are projected to join them by 2031. In London in 2008, 55 per cent of all births were to foreign-born mothers and, in 24 out of 32 boroughs, such births comprised more than half the total—75 per cent in the case of Newham. Outside London, Leicester and the City of Birmingham are both expected to become “majority minority” some time in the 2020s. There could be countervailing factors. Many children of people of mixed and “other white” origin are described as “white British” by their parents. And by recruiting people from other groups, through this “ethnic mobility,” there could be a moderation and even a reversal in the decline of the “white British” group. Plus, the latter category would gradually change its ancestry—as genetics professor Steve Jones has remarked: “the future is brown.” But unless integration, intermarriage or assimilation had made ethnic categories obsolete or symbolic, the transition to a “majority minority” population, whenever it happens, would represent an enormous change to national identity—cultural, political, economic and religious. In Britain, judging by the opposition to high immigration reported in opinion polls over recent years, it seems likely that such developments would be unwelcome. Some argue that a changed population would be for the better, and in any case inevitable in a globalised world. So long as there was an adequate degree of integration, a more diverse population would be more creative, innovative, stimulating, open-minded and tolerant, it is claimed—a view that has become orthodox among the educated elite, though not with the UK population as a whole. IS UPHEAVAL INEVITABLE? What these numbers tell us is that the economic considerations that have thus far preoccupied the debate on immigration are trivial in comparison to the changes to British society implied by the continuation of net immigration at recent levels. But such changes are not inevitable. All depends upon future immigration policy and, in domestic policy, whether multicultural principles, or those of a secular, egalitarian citizenship, prevail. If the changes projected here came to pass, they would be perhaps the biggest unintended consequence of government action—or inaction—in our history. It would be curious if embarrassment or demographic ignorance permitted an old society to marginalise itself in its own homeland without discussing it. In a democracy it is surely appropriate, at the very least, for these considerations, for good or ill, to be at the forefront of debate on migration—not the short-term interests of employers and others grown dependent on migration in our distorted economy. One final thought: the straightforward question of population growth. Individuals in more populous western countries are no richer or happier than residents in lesser ones—if anything, the reverse. Overcrowding and congestion on roads and transport, already notably worse in London, will further worsen without substantial new investment. This is unlikely to be forthcoming at a time when public spending is falling sharply. Moreover, post-2006 immigration accounts for 39 per cent of the projected rise in the number of households in England from 2006 to 2031. This would press further on housing costs, and stymie improvement in the cramped housing standards that we are bequeathing to future generations (see Ben Rogers, p38). Meanwhile water supply in the southeast is already so marginal that this year a desalination plant opened on the lower Thames to meet extra demand. The projected population increases would also end any hope of meeting the—admittedly optimistic—commitments to reduce Britain’s carbon emissions, and seem perverse in a supposedly environmentally-conscious world. And yet, this huge scale of demographic and ethnic upheaval is neither desirable nor inevitable.